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Putting Wilders in perspective

Gypsies performing (photo: stevenimmons)

By Pál Nyiri I watch with a certain envy how my colleagues take part in discussions of and protests against the PVV’s growing strength and its position on immigration. After a year in the Netherlands, I do not yet feel confident enough to participate in these debates myself, and there may be no need for it: anthropologists are perhaps represented with enough voices.

For the time being, I feel more closely connected, and more responsible, for what is happening in Hungarian politics, my country of birth, although I am growing increasingly alienated from it because I feel that the space in which any reasoned discussion of immigration is possible has shrunk to naught with the rapid shift of public discourse to higher and higher levels of nationalism and xenophobia.

Andras Kovats, a sociologist of migration who is the director of Menedek, an organisation for migrants of which I am a member, has recently given an interview to a news site. He talked about immigration, “integration,” and the responsibility of the host society, taking what can be described a moderate left-liberal position (for Dutch readers: something along the lines of D66). Immigrants are only 2% of Hungary’s population, and most of those are ethnic Hungarians (who come from neighbouring areas that used to belong to Hungary before 1919), so that immigration is not a major political issue.

What is a major issue is the position of the Gypsies, some 6% of the population, largely living in extreme poverty and suffering severe discrimination. The party Jobbik gained almost 20% of the votes in a recent election after a campaign focusing on  “Gypsy crime.” This is the party that Wilders refused to sit in the same faction with in the European Parliament, because it is also anti-Semitic and homophobic. Its anti-Semitism does not prevent it from being anti-Arab when it comes to “keeping Europe white.”

The idea that Gypsies are to Eastern Europe what Arabs are to Western Europe is remarkably popular with Hungarian commentators of all political hues, whether they see them as a cultural threat or as an ethnicized, excluded underclass. Andras, too, invoked this parallel in his interview — a parallel that I believe has only limited validity (in many ways, a parallel with Aboriginal Australians is more accurate).

Andras invited us to comment, but when I looked at the comments of earlier readers I realised that there would be no point. These comments ranged from “damned Gypsy-whitewashers” to “there should just not be any Arabs or blacks in the German football team.” It is fascinating how the issue of immigration can serve as a proxy for the airing of racist views in a country with almost no immigration at all, but, clearly, this was not the place to engage in such elevated discussions. I envy my Dutch colleagues the discursive space they have. Clearly, however bad Wilders is, this is a far cry from what is happening in Hungary.

Pál Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at VU University Amsterdam. He earlier wrote about the ethnic politics of Jobbik in Hungary. See also his other posts.

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